Parshat Para: Similar, but so different:

Beyond the technical connection between the bringing of the para aduma, rendering someone who is tameh now tahor, and the upcoming korban Pesach.

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg,

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

The additional Torah reading of Parshat Para, the section in the Torah dedicated to the para aduma (red heifer) occurs this coming Shabbat. The common reason offered for this practice is the need for ritual purification (tahor) for those who are in a state of defilement from touching a corpse (tameh met) through the service of the para aduma.

Why the importance now? We are close to the time to fulfill the commandment of the korban Pesach (Pesach sacrifice), and are required to be tahor in order to perform it. This rationale is quite technical in nature, and while of course it is critical to be able to carry out the korban Pesach, there is a deeper connection between the para aduma and korban Pesach.

The topic of the para aduma is shrouded in mystery. The commandment is structured as a chok, a statute whose meaning we are unable to divine. The specialized purpose is tied to transition from tameh to tahor. The philosophical idea? Let’s take a look at a fascinating Midrash.

God commands us as follows (Bamidbar 19:2):

“This is the statute of the Torah which the Lord commanded, saying, Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was laid.”

The Midrash first emphasizes the inconsistencies one finds in the arena of impurity. As such, this commandment is a chok, and therefore, one should not try and understand it. We must abide by it, simply because it is a decree from the Torah. The Midrash then tries to understand its rationale. God commanded us to bring the para aduma as an act of atonement for the incident of the egel hazahav, or golden calf.

The Midrash now offers an interesting analogy. There was a baby calf that defecated in the courtyard of the king. The king said to the mother of said calf the clean up the excrement. God (being the king) directs us (mother) to bring the para aduma as an atonement for the egel hazahav (the calf from the analogy).

The Midrash now moves to connect the various descriptors used in the verse to the egel hazahav. When God instructs Moshe to speak to the Jewish people and teach them about this commandment, the motivation was due to the Jewish people’s “command” to create the egel hazahav. God instructs the Jews to “take” the animal for the sacrifice, implying it should come from their property. The Jews did the same by the egel hazahav, giving up their gold to make the idol. Furthermore, they should take the para aduma “for” Moshe, as Moshe was the one who prayed on their behalf.

The para aduma must be red, as the appearance of the golden calf was “red”. The animal must be “complete”, as we did not walk with God in a “complete” way. The Midrash then refers to the para aduma lacking any blemishes (mum). The Jewish people created a blemish in themselves due to the worship of the egel hazahav; thus, the atonement can only take place if the animal has no blemishes.

Finally, we are instructed to use an animal that was never worked with a yoke. Why? We threw off the yoke of Heaven from upon us through the sin. Therefore, we must use an animal that never had any yoke placed on it.

Clearly, this Midrash places a tremendous amount of stock in trying to tie together the para aduma and egel hazahav. Yet there is no obvious inference whatsoever in the verse. When we look at the analogy offered first, a critical idea becomes apparent. The concept of the egel hazahav being compared to the calf in the courtyard of the king is intuitive. God then instructs us to bring another animal (its parent) as a sacrifice. What is the difference between the first animal and the second? In truth, the act of worship is the same. In both instances, the animal is being brought as an act of religious worship. One could even posit that the Jews sought to worship God through the egel hazahav, rather than treat it as a separate deity. It is astonishing to realize that nothing outward separates the performances of worship.

The chasm comes from the motivation. The Jews were motivated by their emotional mindset, allowing their individual subjective sense of how to worship God guide them in creating this egel hazahav. Their need for security and desire to express worship in an outward manner led them down the road to destruction. To worship God anyway we wish is precisely how the distorted egel hazahav emerged. When we engage in religious worship purely because it is God’s will, an act of subservience to precisely what He commands us to do, the outcome is correct. The worship of God cannot be subject to whatever our internal emotional compass directs us towards.

The subsequent extrapolations from the verse reinforce this idea. The notion of the egel hazahav being “commanded” by us refers to the objective of a mitzvah. God’s commandments exist to provide us the proper path to live the ideal life. When the Jewish people constructed the egel hazahav, they saw it as the ideal vehicle to perfecting themselves. The para aduma, being a mitzvah, reorients our mindset to understanding how only God can determine the appropriate path of worship.

The Jewish people were willing to give up their material wealth for the sake of their vision of religious worship. Our attachment to that which we own is one of the strongest bonds imaginable, and to give it up for a religious ideal is a powerful attestation to the force of said religious practice. In line with the above reasoning, the idea of severing this relationship for the sake of worship is the key. The differences lies in the drive; is it catering to one’s subjective version of religious worship, or is the sacrifice of material wealth an act of subservience to God’s will. The idea of the animal being brought to Moshe (and to the kohen, in the future) is a clear reflection of the error of the egel hazahav and subsequent resolution.

The Jewish people viewed Moshe as the direct link to God, placing much of their religious security onto him. His “disappearance” presaged the turn to the golden calf, as the intermediary was viewed as an extension of God. The role of the intermediary is not abolished in the atonement process. Moshe was able to pray on behalf of the Jewish people, to redirect the people to the proper relationship with God. As the Jewish people are expressing an act of subservience to God, the idea of the intermediary representing the inability of the people to access God directly is accepted.

The concept of the similar colors is self-explanatory, as we will naturally associated one to the other. But while the connection is demonstrated through the appearance, the necessity of the para aduma being “complete” in said appearance again reinforces the theme. The egel hazahav represented our turning away from serving God and placing our security in Him, an imperfect relationship. The para aduma seeks to repair this defect.

The last descriptions offer two more extremely important points. The idea of the blemish refers to the profound change in the entire Jewish nation due to the sin. We must always be aware of the powerful urge to abandon the correct objective path and be led by our whims and desires for religious worship. It is a part of who we are, and the the para aduma lacking such a “blemish” means we should strive to correct this defect in us. At the same time, we must understand the severe consequence when we turn away from God. The removal of the yoke of Heaven refers to His kingship no longer being absolute. When we stray from what is best for man, and follow a path created by our own imagination, our demise is no different than that of the para aduma.

We can now see beyond the technical connection between the bringing of the para aduma, rendering someone who is tameh now tahor, and the upcoming korban Pesach. The commandment to bring the korban Pesach was given and executed prior to the exodus from Egypt. We needed to first demonstrate our subservience to God, and the korban Pesach, a national expression of complete willingness to abide by God’s command, personifies this idea.

The para aduma, and its “correction” of the egel hazahav debacle, focuses our attention on the danger in straying from the objective path set forth by God. The idea of the abiding by God’s will, first expressed with the korban Pesach, is a foundation of the entire system of Torah.

Today, and throughout our history, there have been individuals and groups within the Jewish nation who seek out a path of religious worship different than set forth from God. There is a justification presented, the result of frustrations and insecurities, or the product of assimilated values. Whatever the rationale, and while many question the harm of such practices, in truth they are the product of a distorted view of worship of God. As we prepare for the the korban Pesach, the ideas brought forth by the para aduma should resonate loud and clear, as we submit ourselves to the objective expression as servants of God.


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